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Monday 14 October 2019

Nolan's last-gasp winner raises the roof

Allianz Hurling League Division 1A: Wexford 1-15 Tipperary 1-14

Wexford attacker Ian Byrne under pressure from Tipperary trio Seamus Callanan, Robert Byrne and Michael Breen
Wexford attacker Ian Byrne under pressure from Tipperary trio Seamus Callanan, Robert Byrne and Michael Breen

Alan Aherne

A frantic spell of end-to-end hurling was finished off in perfect fashion before 6,700 spectators in Innovate Wexford Park on Sunday when Aidan Nolan struck the winning point in the third of four added minutes to give the home side a dramatic and exciting win over 14-man Tipperary by the tightest of margins.

While the game provided typical early-season fare for the most part, particularly in a very poor first-half, there was a grandstand finish after a Harry Kehoe cross from the right corner was pointed at the far post by midfielder Diarmuid O'Keeffe.

That was the equaliser for a Wexford side which had battled back commendably from an eight-point deficit early in the second-half, and both teams went at it hammer and tongs in search of the winner.

Indeed, for the first time all afternoon a championship-like intensity developed as the play moved up and down the heavily-sanded pitch, with nearly two minutes elapsing of non-stop action before Nolan's vital point arrived.

Impressive sweeper Kevin Foley had made a vital catch in the lead-up, with solid full-back Darren Byrne also figuring prominently in that late action on a couple of occasions.

Initially it looked like O'Keeffe might have over-hit a long crossfield pass from right to left for Lee Chin, who had been in the thick of the action since his introduction as a substitute at half-time.

However, the Faythe Harriers man kept the ball in play comfortably before spotting a completely unmarked Aidan Nolan ahead of him, and his cushioned pass was gathered and pointed by the midfielder to give Wexford the lead for the first time.

There was still some defending to do as Tipperary sought a late leveller, but the action ended with loud cheers of delight after Kevin Foley cleared his lines emphatically following a throw-in on the Wexford 20-metre line.

The main lesson to be learned from this Allianz League Division 1A campaign thus far is that it would be very foolish to read too much into any given result.

That's only natural given that there is no relegation for a change to concern counties, all of whom will regard reaching the knockout stages as a bonus in the course of fulfilling the primary aim of blooding some new players for the championship.

Having said that, any victory over Tipperary is an undoubted positive, particularly as they were the sole top ranking team that Davy Fitzgerald had failed to beat at least once during his tenure as manager prior to Sunday.

Wexford trailed by 1-7 to 0-6 at the end of a very poor first-half in which the sides could only muster two points apiece from play, with the home team's contribution arriving from a midfielder and a defender.

Tipperary had held the lead after pouncing for that goal inside the first minute, but it could be argued that the outcome ultimately hinged on the dismissal of their play-making centre-forward, Noel McGrath, for a second yellow card in the 33rd minute.

There was no disputing either of the bookings for the attacker, as he had pole-axed Kevin Foley with a frontal charge just six minutes before a high tackle on Diarmuid O'Keeffe close to the stand sideline, although the damage to the latter's head was done by the trailing leg of a different Tipperary player.

Despite their new-found numerical advantage, Wexford were at sixes and sevens at the start of the second-half and conceded four points without reply to trail by eight.

However, a crucial goal for Seamus Casey, following a lovely mid-air flick by Cathal Dunbar, settled any tension within the team, and they eventually drew level in the 57th minute.

Tipperary regained the lead on three separate occasions, only to be reeled in every time before that winner from Aidan Nolan which leaves Wexford with four points from a possible six ahead of the last two group games away to Clare next Sunday, and home to Kilkenny on March 3.

The team showed five changes from the win in Cork, with Mark Fanning, Simon Donohoe, Jack O'Connor, David Dunne and Paul Morris replaced by Eanna Martin, Shane Reck, Aidan Nolan, Ian Byrne and Seamus Casey respectively.

Darren Byrne was given another searching test in direct opposition to Tipperary captain Seamus Callanan, and it appeared that a tough afternoon might be his lot when the full-forward availed of a Niall O'Meara handpass to beat Martin with a close-range pull to the net after just 43 seconds.

However, the Blackwater man more than held his own thereafter on a day when Kevin Foley got through some first-class sweeping work while Shaun Murphy, freed from that role and looking a lot more comfortable as a result, had his best outing for quite some time.

Joint captain Matthew O'Hanlon also did well in defence, with Lee Chin and Rory O'Connor making significant contributions off the bench, while the confidence of young Seamus Casey will have been boosted no end by his first National League goal.

It was a day for strong workrate and few frills, with the playing surface not helpful to hurlers on either side with a sweet first touch.

Ian Byrne hit the first of Wexford's 14 wides (the opposition had eight) after that goal for wind-aided Tipperary before Diarmuid O'Keeffe knocked over the opener from his three points via the left wing in the fourth minute.

Casey was off target before Niall O'Meara won the puck-out and was fouled, leading to Seamus Callanan pushing his side into a 1-1 to 0-1 lead.

After Wexford settled into their by-now regular formation with Kevin Foley as a seventh defender, Seamus Casey went out to the '40 where he was policed by Ronan Maher, with the latter's big brother, Pádraic, dropping into the free role for the visitors.

And while a long-range point from Ronan was sandwiched between his two wides, Ian Byrne had registered from a couple of frees after fouls on Shaun Murphy and Seamus Casey respectively.

Murphy picked out Aidan Nolan for a shot from the right corner-forward berth in the 13th minute, but netminder Paul Maher was equal to the test with a fine save.

A fumble by Liam Og McGovern and tackle by James Barry after a Cathal Dunbar cross meant that a half-chance for a goal came and went in an instant, but another Byrne free kept Wexford in touch after the former was fouled (1-2 to 0-4).

Jason Forde pointed on the run before a missed free by Byrne was followed by a successful conversion, with Conor McDonald earning that second placed ball.

Pádraig Foley was off target from a couple of long-range frees in quick succession, before an overcarrying call against Damien Reck was greeted by ironic Tipperary cheers in the 31st minute.

The free count had been 10-1 in favour of Wexford beforehand (it ended 17-11), and Seamus Callanan punished that indiscretion before missing another from longer range as the score stood at 1-4 to 0-5.

However, Noel McGrath's dismissal then changed the complexion of the game, although Byrne missed the free that followed as his hurl broke while striking the ball.

Fouls on Niall O'Meara and Barry Heffernan then led to two more points for Callanan, and a late exchange between Pádraig Foley (play) and Callanan (free) left Tipperary with a 1-7 to 0-6 interval lead.

Lee Chin came in for Damien Reck as Wexford went for an orthodox front six with the wind behind them, safe in the knowledge that Kevin Foley could continue to operate as sweeper while the leaders, being a man short, were unable to do the same.

He was flanked at centre-forward by Liam Og McGovern and Ian Byrne, with Seamus Casey going inside to join Conor McDonald and Cathal Dunbar. Incidentally, McDonald had spent some time on the '40 in the opening half, with Casey moving to full-forward.

A wide from Diarmuid O'Keeffe after 30 seconds was followed by a procession of Tipperary points from Niall O'Meara, Callanan, O'Meara again, and Robert Byrne, and it looked like Wexford had completely lost their way (1-11 to 0-6).

Chin set up O'Keeffe for a settling point, and Byrne pulled one more back from a free, before the crucial goal arrived in the 46th minute.

Matthew O'Hanlon handpassed to Cathal Dunbar whose instinctive flick found Ian Byrne in space. He in turn fed a handpass inside to the unmarked Seamus Casey who bore down on the town end goal before giving Paul Maher no chance from close range (1-11 to 1-8).

The goal roused Wexford to such an extent that they had drawn level by the 57th minute after shooting the next three points via Byrne (free), Casey from a crossfield Rory O'Connor pass, and Kevin Foley from a clever Lee Chin assist.

And they had a chance for another goal too, but Pádraig Foley over-hit a handpass to Seamus Casey which ended up going wide after making a good burst down the middle following a fine catch by Matthew O'Hanlon.

However, it seemed as if Tipperary weren't going to relinquish the lead as Seamus Callanan ended their 17 barren minutes from a free, and Casey then slipped on the poor surface in the act of taking a scoreable free which tailed off to the left and wide.

However, that was quickly forgotten when Cathal Dunbar nailed a peach of a point from a 60-metre line ball, only for Jason Forde to earn and slot over a free at the other end to restore Tipperary's advantage (1-13 to 1-12).

A long free by Eanna Martin was gathered by Pádraic Maher, but his delivery straight into Rory O'Connor's path gave the substitute an easy chance to equalise as the game moved into the 67th minute.

Jake Morris edged Tipp in front once more after Callanan intially blocked an attempted clearance by Martin, with John McGrath hitting the game's last wide before all that late drama.

O'Keeffe's leveller and Nolan's winner meant the Wexford supporters went home happy on a day when the inspiring pre-match words of visually impaired Kerry boy Michael O'Brien, a new friend Davy Fitzgerald made at the Late Late Toy Show, helped the players no end in coming out on the right side of this contest.

Wexford: Eanna Martin; Damien Reck, Darren Byrne, Shane Reck; Kevin Foley (0-1); Shaun Murphy, Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt.), Pádraig Foley (0-1); Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-3), Aidan Nolan (0-1); Liam Og McGovern, Seamus Casey (1-1), Ian Byrne (0-6 frees); Cathal Dunbar (0-1 line ball), Conor McDonald. Subs. - Lee Chin (joint capt.) for D. Reck (HT), Rory O'Connor (0-1) for I. Byrne (51), Harry Kehoe for Casey (62), Simon Donohoe for O'Keeffe, temp. (66-67).

Tipperary: Paul Maher; Donagh Maher, James Barry, Ronan Maher (0-1); Seamus Kennedy, Pádraic Maher, Barry Heffernan; Robert Byrne (0-1), Michael Breen; John O'Dwyer, Noel McGrath, Patrick Maher; Jason Forde (0-2, 1 free), Seamus Callanan (capt., 1-7, 0-6 frees), Niall O'Meara (0-2). Subs. - Jake Morris (0-1) for O'Dwyer (51), Willie Connors for Heffernan (54), Alan Flynn for D. Maher (57), John McGrath for O'Meara, inj. (59), Tom Fox for Byrne (68).

Referee: Colm Lyons (Cork).

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